3 ways to experience Japanese culture when you can’t get to Japan

paper lanter, Kyoto

paper lantern, Matsuo Taisha, Kyoto – This higher ranked sprawling shrine was down the back alley from our accommodation. I started learning how to use our new DSLR camera here.

Do you miss Japan but can’t get back? Do you wish you could visit or even move there but it seems impossible? Fret no more! Three ways to experience Japanese culture without leaving your home city or town are here. Let’s keep the dream of going to Japan alive or feel closer to what you miss!

Movies from or about Japan

Watching movies from or about Japan is a compelling way to see Japan and Japanese culture. Here are five of my favorites spanning animations, high school flicks and one real-life exploration.

Ghibli is the iconic studio renowned for its animated films. Some Ghibli films do an exceptional job of portraying daily life in Japan. The clang-clang of railway crossings, views over Tokyo, convenience store jingles, planting rice and exploring forests evoke tremendous longing for Japan. Watching films with an eye for daily life helps me relive my memories.

old man poet

When we visited Kamakura, we came across this man singing near a sakura tree in full bloom.

Watching movies in Japanese with subtitles is best. Hearing movies in the original language is more immersive.

Try public libraries and those at educational institutions or Japanese associations, Japanese or Asian museums or centres, tourism boards, and the local Japanese consulate or embassy to find copies.

My favorite Ghibli movies for making me cry and miss Japan the most are:

  • My Neighbor Totoro. This film shows a rural and historical view of Japan. I love the expansive countryside views, soaking freshly picked vegetables in a stream, features of homes including offerings to attic gods, and sleeping on tatami under a mosquito net.
  • Whisper of the Heart. This movie takes place in contemporary Tokyo. The neighborhood streets and back alleys, mailboxes, interiors of apartments, scenes at school, crossing train tracks, and riding bicycles leave me feeling nostalgic.
Totoro himself! Well, a nice model of him with a bit kicked? out. Lake Tazawa, Akita Prefecture.

Totoro himself! Well, a nice model of him with a bit kicked? out. Lake Tazawa, Akita Prefecture.

Two funny films that show the inner workings of high schools in Japan are Linda! Linda! Linda! and Swing Girls. Besides the laugh-out-loud lines and stories, Hitoshi thought that the representations of high school life were the same as what he experienced. Swing Girls is likely easier to find than Linda! Linda! Linda! We saw the latter at a film festival in Canada put on by the Japanese Consulate. Hitoshi surprised me with a copy for my birthday with help from his family in Japan as we had no luck finding it in Canada.

Karin Muller’s film Japanland is a partner to her 2005 book of the same name. The film takes a different approach from the book that tells of her experiences living, travelling and practicing judo in Japan for a year. I enjoyed seeing footage that was not part of the book, visual coverage of what I had read, and another woman’s perspective of Japan.

Very Important Moss of the VIP kind at Ginkakuji in Kyoto

Very Important Moss of the VIP kind at the sedate but famous Ginkakuji Temple in Kyoto

There are hundreds of movies about Japan in Japanese, English and other languages. Share some of your favorites in the comments! While a film can be enjoyable for the story, the supporting elements highlighting Japan and Japanese culture can help connect you to what you may be missing.

Japanese Food

giant gyoza outside a restaurant in Akita city

giant gyoza outside a restaurant in Akita city

After seeing food highlighted on every genre of TV show, outside restaurants in vivid plastic models and giant replicas, and brightly slathered over packaging in the grocery store, I began to think that food was no ordinary sustenance in Japan. Learning to cook from my mother-in-law and eating my husband’s replicas of our favorite Japanese dishes in Canada has helped me appreciate the importance food plays in Japanese culture.

Ekisoba Restaurant sign

hilarious sign for a soba (noodle) restaurant – Eki means train station. Yudetate means just cooked and Agetate means just fried. This restaurant was near Omori station in Tokyo. This sign looks just like a Japan Rail version!

Preparing Japanese food is a fun way to pretend you’re in Japan! Try the public library for cookbooks or online, of course. Finding a local cookbook might make your life easier, especially if there are ingredients that are hard to find outside Japan. That said, one cookbook I got in Japan that I’ve found useful is 100 Recipes from Japanese Cooking. It’s bilingual and filled with delicious photos and helpful illustrations. My edition is 2006 by Kodansha International Ltd. For recipes tried and tested in Canada, see my posts on miso soup, making rice and lazy sushi!

bakery dessert cubes

cube desserts from a bakery near Ueno Park, Tokyo (and our baby’s snack in the lower right!) The desserts were connected with the zoo. One was filled with curry and the other was pudding!

Seek out Asian or Japanese/Korean grocery stores and wander the aisles. Packaging usually has an English sticker or is in English so it’s not difficult to get an idea of what is inside. Try researching Japanese food before you go and then look for those items in the grocery store. We have noticed that local chain grocery stores are stocking more fresh vegetables and packaged products that can be used in Japanese cooking. Experience Japan without hopping on a plane!

Japanese Websites

Surfing online can become an adventure by focusing on Japanese website in Japanese. Imagine you are in Japan and trying to navigate your day without reading the language. Turn off translators and ignore the English pages. Often the Japanese sites are quite different, reflecting perceived taste, focus and views of the intended audience. Here are a few to get you started.

Toei Bus in Tokyo – The bus is fantastic in Tokyo and the Japanese website looks far more interesting than the English one!

Muji –  This is one of my favorite stores in Japan. Housewares, stationery supplies, food, clothing and even appliances are all under the Muji banner.

Namahage Museum – This fun spot is in the middle of almost nowhere in Akita Prefecture. I was lucky to visit the festival where scary namahage monsters scream down the mountain to terrify children and leave parents giggling.

Namahage costume

Arrrrrrrrrrr! The Namahage monster is unveiled! Oga, Akita Prefecture

What do you do to connect with Japan?

Come back later this week for six more ideas!

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20 thoughts on “3 ways to experience Japanese culture when you can’t get to Japan

  1. I used to watch a lot of Japanese movies and I also visited a lot of different Japanese restaurants to try out some new dishes! Great way to experience this country without going there.

    • Movies are great, eh? Which ones were your favs? Oh, food, glorious food… wouldn’t it be nice to simply eat all day? 😀 What dishes have you tried outside Japan that you’ve enjoyed?

  2. Hahaha – wow! You did the Namahage thing in Akita! That’s so cool!
    And I will check out your recommended movies. I’m looking for new ways to practice Japanese…

    (PS – Whisper of the Heart is one of my favorite Ghibli movies. I have no idea why. It just really resonates with me!)

    • Ya! Do I look fierce? Do I? Do I? 😀 I’ve been there a few times. I really love that area. Hitoshi and I wanted to get married at Mt. Shinzan. The shrine master called Hitoshi back and said thank you, that’s great that you’re interested but no one will come. 😀 He was right, too. It’s so isolated and there are really no services in the area. Hiking Mt. Shinzan is gorgeous in the lower part and then it gets really steep through dense vegetation (there are literally ropes to hold onto) and then tada! You’re at the top, and surrounded by more vegetation and can’t see a darn thing and then have to go back down through all the mess again. 😀 We did it after a rainstorm, totally spontaneously. H was in his dancing shoes and I had my purse. I know, ridiculous but we were in love and didn’t care. 😀

      *happy sigh* I’m so happy to hear that you love WotH, too! I always cry when they start singing Country Road. Ahhhh! And those two are so cute. Hula Girls, Kamome shokudo, and of course, Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro are also all great movies! Well, and lots of the other Ghibli ones. If you want more suggestions, let me know. I can’t remember the titles of some others.

  3. I love muji! There is a shop near my office and I have to resist going in there all the time as I always end up buying something 🙂
    Btw, did you see I made a Ochazuke bento?

    • Oh my goodness! It must be so hard to avoid going in! In Feb/Mar when we were in Japan, I spent Y10,000+ on… Y100-Y300 pens, pre-made food – the most expensive being around Y400, and their absolutely divine chocolate covered freeze dried strawberries! Hubby was stunned when I showed up with my shopping bag, most of which went back with us to Canada. What’s your favorite thing to get there?

      No! I’ll check it out. I wanted to comment on your ladybird bento (co sute!) but am still having trouble with my tablet. 😦 I made accidental furikake the other day and that will be an upcoming blog post! 😀

        • Really?! Besides the pens, highlighters with windows in the nibs, and blotting papers, the FOOD is the best offer plus it’s delicious and inexpensive. Sour, salty and green tea candies, jellybeans, sugar stars (for coffee but I eat them straight), marshmallows, chocolates, cookies, roll cake, other small cakes, soft ice cream, popcorn, honey, no salt chips (my dad’s fav), tortilla chips, pre-made tortilla sets (we tried last night!), Thai curry sets, Vietnamese spring roll sets, Indian curries, Korean pancake mixes, Japanese curries, rice cooker mixes and more!

          • I am so jealous! Wish we had that here.
            In the UK it is mainly stationery, travel ass, some kitchen/home goods, storage things and clothing.
            What are rice cooker mixes? And related, do you actually ever cook something in your rice cooker other than rice?
            When I bought mine, I did contemplate buying the more expensive one that had a cake function as well, but in the end I didn’t. Mine has a steamer though (but never used)

            • Hey! I’m jealous, too since I’m in Canada! ;D
              Rice cooker mixes are flavorings, either liquid or dried. Yes! Grains – millet, pearl barley, cracked wheat, quinoa, couscous. I haven’t tried any desserts yet… my (Japanese) friend is going to send me a chocolate cake recipe. I want us both to try and compare results! She said that it was all the rage in Japan a while back. Another acquaintance swore by his upside-down cheesecake. Hubby made a rice dish with chicken and it turned out well.
              Ours doesn’t have a steamer although they are supposed to be handy for, well, steaming!

      • My favourite Muji item is completely non food and non bento related……

        It’s their multi functional scarf/cape. Think I have about 10 different colours 🙂

        • 😀 That sounds lovely! I’ll have to see if I can find it online. As you can probably guess, I don’t spend much time in the clothing section although… hubby bought a really sharp, short-sleeved, collared shirt during our summer 2012 trip. I bought baby socks earlier this year and a really nice but inexpensive set of hashi for our baby-chan. I’m really curious now about checking out Muji’s websites for other countries. I wonder how tailored the offerings are…

          • O, definitely do. I am not sure what the name of that scarf is, but it’s so great. It is a sort of rectangle with buttons and button holes and you can wear it in all kind of different ways, like a cape, or a scarf or a buttoned up around your arms. Plus they come in different colours and thickness. I always have one in my handbag

        • It was so ridiculous that it even turned out. I feel a little like the people that invented the Post-It note. The ingredients will include, “1 intermittently crying baby”. 😀

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